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Shriek of the Week: The Decemberists, “The Rake’s Song”

March 5, 2014

Yesterday I wrote about Colin Meloy‘s short memoir, written in 2004 as an entry into the 33-1/3 series, under the guise of being a book about the Replacements’ album Let It Be. I mentioned that “What I thought was a must-read for ‘Mats fans is actually a must-read for Decemberists fans”. Fortunately I am a fan of the Decemberists. I don’t necessarily have a favorite among their EPs and LPs; each stand separate to me and are difficult to compare. But I am particularly fond of the album that introduced me to the band, The Hazards of Love, and the single that introduced me to the album, “The Rake’s Song“.

Hazards_sleeveThe Rake’s Song was released before the full album and made available for free as a download (it can still be downloaded for free here) which is why I listened to it separately from Hazards. As a stand-along single it is extraordinary. It pounds without being loud, and drives home its message without being overbearing. The lyrics – which can be found here – are jarring. The song is about a boy who gets married way too young, whose wife dies birthing their fourth child, leading the singer to murder the remaining children. All along he repeats the refrain “Alright, alright, alright.” (Reminding us of one of this week’s Oscar winners.) The singer – the rake – walks away a happy bachelor, no wife, no kids, no worries, as he explains in the chilling final verse:

And that’s how I came your humble narrator
To be living so easy and free
Expect you think that I should be haunted
But it never really bothers me
Alright, alright, alright
Alright, alright, alright

This is indeed The Rake’s Song. I didn’t know what to expect from the band after that – as mentioned, I had no exposure to their prior records – but I picked up a copy of The Hazards of Love within the year. It instantly became one of my favorite albums, but not for the reasons I expected. Hazards is that very rare breed – a rock opera – something I thought disappeared with The Who. Meloy said in an early interview that he “initially conceived [of the album] as a musical.” Ultimately, because Hazards is a full story whose narrative runs from the first song to the last,  it requires that the listener simply put on the record and let her run. “The Rake’s Song” would be the only single from album. Some reviews say that the songs are self-contained work out of context, but most disagree. I’m in the camp with those who think that the album only works as a complete piece, but that doesn’t detract from my enjoyment of it. Not every record should be a rock opera, but it isn’t bad if the attempt is made every so often. I happen to think that the Decemberists pulled it off.

The Hazards of Love inserts

The Hazards of Love inserts

You can see why this is an album worth owning on vinyl. The reason why I got into vinyl collecting was to get back to listening to albums as a whole, start to finish. Just drop the needle and walk away. This record was made for that experience, and just in time for the vinyl revival.

The Decemberists took it upon themselves to play the album in its entirety, start to finish, at many of their shows in the couple of years following the album’s release. One of those times was at the Newport Folk Festival in 2011. Thanks to NPR that performance is available for free to stream or download. So if you like The Rake’s Song and are ready to give Hazards a plunge, there’s a free and easy way to do it.

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The Decemberists – The Rake’s Song performed live at Stubbs, Austin, TX, March 19, 2008

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